In my previous post, I spoke of the need for young musicians who are interested in a career in classical music to venture beyond what is accepted tradition and create unique musical experiences of their own while they are still within the safety net of their music school, their parents, or both. This process can be really frustrating at times, as it involves lots of trial and error. However, the lessons learned through that effort are an exceptional complement to formal classroom work; and spending time each day working with your friends to create something of your own can be a huge relief from the everyday stresses of music school.
As I was writing that post, I tried to find websites or articles for various student-led ensembles across the country that I could hold up as examples. Unfortunately, finding those examples proved to be too much even for the mighty Google. So this week, I decided to take some initiative and throw a spotlight onto two groups from my own alma mater that are doing some very cool work outside the lines of their assigned curriculum. One of these stories is below, and the other will be posted later this week.
Today I’m going to highlight a group founded by clarinetist Wesley Rhodes, who is in his final semester of study at East Carolina before he heads to Colorado State to pursue a Master’s degree in performance. Wesley founded Frequencies two years ago as part of ECU’s New Music Festival, which occurs each spring. The idea was to put on a concert where students could select modern chamber music that appealed to their own musical tastes and perform that music for their peers and faculty. As Wesley puts it, “For me, the goal was getting the students to be aware that these pieces are out there, get them aware that they can actually do them, and then getting the faculty aware that we, the students, can do them in front of people.” If you’re currently a music student who is reading this and wondering why I’m making a fuss about this, think of all that goes into planning a recital for yourself, then imagine adding four or five other groups to that recital and not having your professor help you pick out the music from start to finish. Hopefully that puts in perspective how cool this undertaking was, particularly at a school where this sort of thing was not really happening.
The first step to turn this idea into a reality actually did involve a faculty member. Specifically, Wesley had to get the blessing of Ed Jacobs, who is the director of the New Music Festival, as well as a dear friend and collaborator of ours here at Open G. What was Eddie’s response when a student came forward and said he wanted to organize a concert by students and for students? As Wesley tells the story, Eddie’s first words were “I’ve been waiting thirteen years for someone to do this.” Teachers: that is the perfect response to a student telling you that they want to try and create something of their own. Students: if you have an idea, don’t automatically assume your teachers will shoot it down and tell you to stop distracting yourself from that Bach partita.
From that initial conversation onward, Eddie let the kids play but was there to offer advice if they ever needed it. “Dr. Jacobs was kind of like a facilitator making sure I wasn’t taking on too much or too little,” Wesley says. “I was really lucky to have that.” The two traded a long series of emails to find the perfect name for the concert while Wesley began the tedious work of filling out the bill with other performers. When I ask about his mindset in deciding performers and repertoire, Wesley tells me that he tried to find willing performers before worrying about rep because “It’s easier to get the people together than it is to say ‘I want to do this piece’ and get very close to the end and not have what you need.” The first concert featured performances of Ian Clarke’s Orange Dawn (flute and piano), Krzysztof Penderecki’s Capriccio (solo tuba), Leon Kirchner’s Five Pieces for Piano (solo piano), V.J. Manzo’s Discourse for Clarinet and Interactive Software (Eb clarinet and electronics), Antal Dorati’s Cinq Pieces pour Oboe (solo oboe), and Gregory Wanamaker’s Duo Sonata (clarinet and alto saxophone).
The hardest part of the whole process as he relates it was scheduling proper rehearsal time for each of the groups to play together amidst the chaos that can be music school in the spring. For the concert this past year, Wesley estimates that no more than seven rehearsals occurred, so it was absolutely important that each rehearsal run in a smooth and focused way.
They found pieces to play predominately over the internet and on occasion had to contact a composer directly in order to acquire the actual sheet music. “Some of the pieces written after 2002 are more of a case where you’d have to actually email the composer and say ‘I have this event going and I’d like to put your piece on it.’ And so you’d have to sort of wait a little bit and hope that they’d get back to you. More often than not, they would, which is really awesome.” Google’s ability to find music and the proper contact for acquiring that music truly knows few limitations.
Frequencies has now been a part of ECU’s New Music Festival (now the North Carolina New Music Initiative) for two years and is gearing up for its third. Their performance this spring will be on March 20 at 7:00 pm, in the event that any of my readers are in the eastern North Carolina area. Wesley is set to graduate and move to Colorado this winter, at which point the leadership of Frequencies will be passed on to junior flutist Benjamin Sledge (remember that name for my next post). When I ask Wesley if he feels the group has met their goals, he emphatically replies, “I think we met them splendidly. There’s always a little bit of fear with any recital you give that someone or something is just going to crash and burn, and we didn’t have that either time. It was amazing. It was well received, and the faculty wanted to see it again; and people from the community who came out were very excited to see that it was a younger crowd making these things happen. I think, in the long run, it’s going to help draw in a bigger crowd.”
If I haven’t made my point painstakingly obvious by this point, it is simply that we young folk are highly capable of creating things at any point in our schooling or not-quite-yet-professional careers. The sooner we start, the better for each of us in the long run. I am very excited to see how this group develops beyond Wesley’s tenure and am confident that it will continue to be a staple in the already exceptional new music scene at ECU.
I’ll close with a quote from Wesley when I asked him if he had any specific advice for students who had an idea but weren’t sure they knew how to begin realizing that idea and making it a reality. “Just don’t be afraid to jump in the water. It could crash and burn, but there’s a good chance that it won’t. Before I approached Dr. Jacobs, I was a little skeptical of it, because I was thinking ‘What if he says no, or what if he says yes but I can’t get anyone [to play] and we have to withdraw the whole thing?’ So it’s just something where you have to be ready to jump in the water; and if there’s a shark in the water, you deal with it.”
William Carrigan is a bass player and songwriter based in New York City, as well as the current Chief Operations Officer at Open G Records. He graduated from East Carolina University with degrees in classical and jazz performance and currently attends New York University in pursuit of a Master’s degree in music business. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.